Four times a year, the Church sets aside three days to focus on God through His marvelous creation. These quarterly periods take place around the beginnings of the four natural seasons that “like some virgins dancing in a circle, succeed one another with the happiest harmony,” as St. John Chrysostom wrote.
These four times are each kept on a successive Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and are known as “Ember Days,” or Quatuor Tempora, in Latin. The first of these four times comes in Winter, after the the Feast of St. Lucy; the second comes in Spring, the week after Ash Wednesday; the third comes in Summer, after Pentecost Sunday; and the last comes in Autumn, after Holy Cross Day. Their dates can be remembered by this old mnemonic:
Sant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angaria quarta sequens feria.
Holy Cross, Lucy, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost,
are when the quarter holidays follow.
For non-Latinists, it might be easier to just remember “Lucy, Ashes, Dove, and Cross.”
Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Quadragesima Sunday (the first Sunday of Lent) are known as “Lenten Embertide,” which, depending on the date of Easter, can come as early as February 11, but which is seen as associated with the season of Spring (March, April, May). Liturgically, the lessons for the Wednesday and Saturday Masses focus on the Commandments given to Moses by God, and on the promises to those who keep them well, all ending with the story of the three lads saved by an angel from Nabuchodonosor’s furnace, as is so for all but Whit Embertide.
The Gospel readings speak of Our Lord discoursing on the sign of Jonas, and how exorcised spirits can return (Matthew 12:38-50), healing the paralytic (John 5:1-15), and the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9). (1)
These times are spent fasting and partially abstaining (voluntary since the new Code of Canon Law) in penance and with the intentions of thanking God for the gifts He gives us in nature and beseeching Him for the discipline to use them in moderation. The fasts, known as “Jejunia quatuor temporum,” or “the fast of the four seasons,” are rooted in Old Testament practices of fasting four times a year:
Thus saith the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Juda, joy, and gladness, and great solemnities: only love ye truth and peace.
Our Israelite ancestors once fasted weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but Christians changed the fast days to Wednesdays (the day on which Christ was betrayed) and Fridays (the day on which He was crucified). The weekly two day fasts were later amended in the Roman Church to keeping only Fridays as penitential days, but during Embertides, the older, two-day fasts are restored. Saturdays (the day He was entombed) were added to these Ember times of fasting and are seen as a sort of culmination of the Ember Days: for example, on Ember Wednesdays, there is one lesson given during the Mass; on Fridays, there are none; and on Saturdays, there are four or five. Interestingly, the story of Sidrach, Misach, and Abdenago’s escape from King Nabuchodonosor’s fiery furnace with the help of an angel is commemorated on each Saturday of Embertides except that of Whit Embertide, and part of their beautiful hymn of praise follows (Daniel 3:52-56. See readings at the bottom of the page for this gorgeous hymn in its entirety). (2)
Ember Days are days favored for priestly ordinations (4), prayer for priests, first Communions, almsgiving and other penitential and charitable acts, and prayer for the souls in Purgatory. Note that medieval lore says that during Embertides, the souls in Purgatory are allowed to appear visibly to those on earth who pray for them.
Because of the days’ focus on nature, they are also traditional times for women to pray for children and safe deliveries. (2)
In the United States of America all the days of Lent; the Fridays of Advent (generally);the Ember Days; the vigils of Christmas and Pentecost, as well as those (14 Aug.) of the Assumption; (31 Oct.) of All Saints, are now fasting days. In Great Britain, Ireland, Australia and Canada, the days just indicated, together with the Wednesdays of Advent and (28 June) the vigil of Saints Peter and Paul, are fasting days. (4)
Fasting means we can have only one full, meatless meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday according to the USCCB. Some food can be taken at the other regular meal times, but combined they should be less than a full meal. Liquids are allowed at any time, but no solid food should be consumed between meals. Those that are excused from fast and abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women. In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting. (5)
When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. Meat may be included in one meal, except as noted above.
Hence, the sick, the infirm, convalescents, delicate women, persons sixty years old and over, families whose members cannot have the necessaries for a full meal at the same time, or who have nothing but bread, vegetables or such like viands, those to whom fasting brings loss of sleep or severe headaches, wives whose fasting incurs their husband’s indignation, children whose fasting arouses parent’s wrath; in a word, all those who can not comply with the obligation of fasting without undergoing more than ordinary hardship are excused on account of their inability to fulfill the obligation.
Priests charged with the care of souls may dispense individuals for good reason. Superiors of religious communities may dispense individual members of their respective communities provided sufficient reasons exist. Confessors are not qualified to grant these dispensations unless they have been explicitly delegated thereunto. They may, however, decide whether sufficient reason exists to lift the obligation. (4)
No student of ecclesiatical discipline can fail to perceive that the obligation of fasting is rarely observed in its integrity nowadays. Conscious of the conditions of our age, the Church is ever shaping the requirements of this obligation to meet the best interests of her children. At the same time no measure of leniency in this respect can eliminate the natural and divine positive law imposing mortification and penance on man on account of sin and its consequences. (Council of Trent, Sess. VI. can. xx) (4)
Also see our story FAST AND ABSTINENCE-EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW here